Sunday, July 15, 2018

Race Report: Silver Rush 50 Run

At this time last week, I was running in a 50 mile race. I'm still sort of in awe about it.

When I signed up in January for the Silver Rush 50 run in Leadville, I intended for it to be my "A" race - the main goal I'd strive towards this year. For the first time since I trained for my first ironman in 2012, I had a big scary goal that I wasn't sure I'd be able to achieve. The feeling was terrifying, thrilling, wonderful, and intimidating.

I trained for it quietly, using a free plan that I found online paired with advice from Dawn. I had a hard time telling other people that I was going to do a 50 mile run. I felt like an impostor, a triathlete posing as an ultrarunner: who am I to claim I can run 50 miles? Then I won my coin for the Leadville Trail 100 at the Leadville Marathon last month and everything changed. Suddenly the 50 miler became a training race on the way to the even more intimidating 100. With that change in plans, two things happened: the 50 mile race became easier to talk about and I started working with a coach.

I've been attending a functional strength class for runners held by Nell Rojas of Rojas Athletics since early spring. I've worked with a couple of coaches in the past, and through those experiences I've learned what I need: a local coach who has group training sessions and can see me train, an enthusiastic and supportive cheerleader, and a partner in the plan towards achieving a goal. Of course Nell fits this description and working with her reminds me so much of those days when Dawn was helping me learn to train to my potential in San Antonio.

I had a conversation with Nell in early June about starting to work together towards fall and winter running goals after the Silver Rush 50. Once I got the coin for the Leadville 100, I signed on with Nell immediately. I want every advantage going into the 100. So, for the final 3 weeks before the Silver Rush, I had the glorious benefit of focused, race-specific workouts that made me feel incredibly strong and confident going into this 50 mile run.

The Course
As part of a big weekend in the Leadville Race Series, there's a Silver Rush 50 mountain bike race on Saturday and a run on the same course on Sunday. The race starts in Leadville at 10,200 feet. The first 100 yards is a nasty hike up a ski hill. You reach 12,000 feet 4 times in 50 miles, with a total elevation gain of 7,000 feet. There's some single track, some gravel roads, some jeep paths, and a little bit of asphalt. Runners get 14 hours to complete the race, and while the course of this race is gentler than the marathon, it's no small feat to take on as your first 50 mile run.

Race Day
At 6 am on race morning, the national anthem played as a giant American flag waved at the top of the ski hill. Moments later the gun went off and I gave Trent one last kiss and started slowly up the hill, feeling emotional, with tears welling in my eyes as I considered the day ahead of me.

The first two people to reach the top (male and female) get a coin to the Leadville 100. People actually sprinted up this hill for it.

I think my face says everything I was feeling 2 minutes into this race.
I'd been told to take the hill slow and keep my heart rate under control, so that's what I did. I remember reading an article with advice about these races: the writer recommended finding a comfortable pace that you can run at all day - and then running slightly slower than that. I heeded this advice as I made my way along jeep paths through the woods, inhaling the pine-scented air, carefully watching my heart rate and eating and drinking at the appropriate intervals. I repeated a mantra that came to me early in the race - part of it came from Dawn, part from the Oiselle website, and part out of thin air because it worked for me:

Eyes down, toes up.
Heart full, wings out.

At 9 miles the terrain became steeper and more technical with water running over rocks down the trail and I wondered which parts of this the cyclists had to walk. Turns out it was miles 9-11. They took forever. Finally I reached the top and the reward was a glorious view of the mountains and a 3 mile run down a gentle gravel road to the first aid station where spectators and crew could meet you. I recognized that I was running well downhill and I knew that I was ahead of schedule on my way to the halfway checkpoint, so I was buoyant. I sang along with my music as I trotted down the hill. I'm going to do this!

At mile 14 I approached the Printer Boy aid station and met up with my amazing support crew: Trent, Whiting and Doug and their girls. I took a quick slathering of sunscreen and was on my way to the second climb. It passed in what felt like the blink of an eye and all of a sudden I was at mile 20. Five miles to food and drink at the halfway checkpoint at Stumptown. I reached some technical downhill and realized that I still need a lot of work with downhill running. As I gingerly picked my way down the rock-strewn path, I grumbled to myself when people skipped happily past me. I drank the last sips of water in my hydration pack. Uh oh.

Doug ran me into Printer Boy and peppered me with facts and encouragement.
Seeing Trent's face at aid stations was everything. 
The weather felt hot as made my way into the Stumptown aid station and all I wanted was water. As I approached the hill up to the aid station, I saw Trent walking down it towards me. He gave me some of the water that he was carrying, then walked me up and around to the aid station where Whiting, Melina, and McKenna were waiting. They had unpacked my drop bag and had it waiting for me with a chair. "I don't want to change my shoes," I said. They asked me what I did need and then carried it out with NASCAR-like precision: full bladder of water, two full bottles of sports drink, snacks in the back of my backpack moved to the front so I could access them. Another kiss from Trent and I was on my way again, 45 minutes ahead of the halfway point cutoff of 7.5 hours.

Stumptown smiles
I felt confident as I made my way back along the route I'd just come down. There was a little turn to the right and I was on my way back uphill again. This time, I was headed towards a section of single track above the treeline which is significant because a few minutes later, the clouds rolled in and it began to hail. I couldn't help laughing as I stopped to grab my raincoat from my pack. Hail just follows me around (no it doesn't, it's what happens in the mountains in the summer). Along with a small pack of 4 or 5 runners, I made my way down the single track in the pea-sized hail. I hoped that it wouldn't get worse because there was nowhere to hide from it. We were running/hiking along a ridge on the side of a mountain, and although it was beautiful, I wondered how the bikers did it the day before. I'd topple over and roll down the hill, I thought. We passed what looked like an abandoned well, it looked like something from Game of Thrones and I thought to myself that if I'd been on my bike I would 100% have fallen into it. As it is, I ran past it with one hand out blocking it from view, laughing to myself about how scared I was.

The hail stopped after about half an hour and the rain stopped soon after that. I wiggled out of my raincoat as the sun tried to make an appearance. There was one more aid station before the descent back to Printer Boy. As I stopped to empty my pockets of gu packets and grabbed some more gu and sports drink from the table, the volunteers urged me to take a garbage bag and wear it as a makeshift coat. "It's warm," they pleaded. They were so persuasive that I stood for moments arguing that I didn't want one: I had a raincoat in my backpack and I wasn't cold. Looking at my data after the race, I spent 23 minutes of this day at zero miles per hour and I think I spent 6 of them here. With the loss in momentum from arguing about a trash bag, I decided to take a minute to sit on the ground and empty one shoe of the small rocks that were rolling around in there. I stopped for a luxurious port-a-potty break instead of just using the woods for natural breaks like I'd done all day.

I took off running again down the hill to Printer Boy: five miles to go to get to mile 36 and my friends and family. Along the way I saw a spectator who told me, "you're doing great! You have plenty of time!" She clearly had cutoffs in mind, so I didn't really have plenty of time. As I rounded the last corner down toward the road that would lead to the aid station, I saw familiar faces. Trent and my teammate Chris were standing at the bottom of the hill. Chris had done the bike race the day before and was out for a training run. "I'll run you up the hill!" he exclaimed, as Trent (in his waders because he'd been fishing) drove the car up the road to the aid station. Chris's energy was contagious and we made our way up the hill as quickly as I could go. When he encouraged me to run I said no, choosing instead to hike with purpose.

I have the best teammates ever! Chris ran with me for about a mile.

When I reached mile 36, I'd been out there for almost 10 hours. I had 4 hours to make it back to the start. The 14 miles ahead of me included a 3-mile hike up the hill I'd run down joyously that morning, plus 11 miles of downhill running to the finish. "You've got a good cushion of time," Doug encouraged me as I made my way through the station, filling up with water and sports drink one more time, "just don't squander it like I always seem to do." (Foreshadowing. Ugh, Doug. You really know how to write a story.)

Trent walked me up out of the aid station and we laughed as a spectator joked, "look, he's racing in waders!" Whiting ran up the first part of the hill with me and then I was on my own again to finish the race. Armed with hiking poles now, I hiked up the hill but was losing momentum. I had to pee and I was with a group of people on an exposed road with nowhere to hide. The feeling became more uncomfortable as the minutes ticked by too quickly. My music stopped playing as my phone's battery drained. I guess this is the part where I'm supposed to dig deep. I finally found a place around a turn in the road to stop to pee and take a moment to reset and get myself ready to tackle the downhill.

As I took the turn off the road to tackle the first 2 technical miles of downhill followed by 9 gentle miles, I was ecstatic to not be going uphill anymore. That feeling immediately turned to desperation as I took note of how slowly I was descending. Time was running out. As I reached the less technical section, I became aware that I wasn't moving as quickly as I'd expected, and I was moving as fast as I could.

I saw a spectator cheering as I approached the final aid station. I asked her if there were any time cutoffs besides the one at the finish line at 8 pm. "Yes," she replied, "there's a 6:00 cutoff at the aid station ahead." I looked at my watch: it was 5:57. "You're okay," she said, "it's about half a mile up the road!" I can't run half a mile in 3 minutes on a flat paved road on a good day, let alone after 42 miles of running. But I moved as fast as I could toward the aid station and noted all the people standing around it as I approached. It was 6:05. Would they cut me?

Nobody made any attempts to pull me from the course, so I grabbed 4 gu packets and asked one of the volunteers, "is the finish 8 miles from here?" "No, it's 7," he replied, and I smiled. I could do 7 miles in the 2 hours that I had left.

It was actually 8 miles to the finish.

I covered the terrain as quickly as I could, stumbling over rocks with eyes glazed from tiredness and dehydration. As I approached what I thought was the last mile, I could hear the finish line. I can do this! I ran down the small stretch of asphalt and heard someone cheering from their front porch, "you can do this!" And then I turned the corner and a figure standing at the top of the hill was yelling down at me: "ALADEEN MOTHERFUCKER!"

What? My friend Brian from San Antonio and I had a joke about yelling that phrase from the Borat movie at each other during races, usually on the bike. But that could not be Brian. Was I hallucinating? Turns out it was Herb, who has been up here on a camping vacation from Texas: he'd come to surprise me at the finish. I ran towards him and asked, "how far is it from here?" "About a mile," he replied, jogging off down the trail. It was 7:55. The volunteer at the aid station had been wrong about the distance, and I wasn't going to make the time cut. I handed my hiking poles to Herb and moved as quickly as my legs could carry me up one more climb and around some cruel switchbacks that took me further away from the finish line. He made me chase him and we weaved through the trees toward the final descent.

Herb captured my last desperate rush for the finish.
Trent was waiting at the finish line as I jogged down the chute. I didn't make the time. Do I still cross the finish line? As my face crumpled with tears, he told me, "you just ran 50 miles, who cares. Cross the finish line." So I did. I was greeted by friendly faces who put a medal around my neck and handed me the coffee cup that says "Finisher," and the photographer snapped some uncomfortable photos.

Fourteen hours, 8 minutes, and 31 seconds. Not an official finisher, didn't make the 14 hour cut.

I've often wondered at ironman races how people feel when they don't reach the finish line by midnight. How bad does that feel? How disappointed must they be, to have trained towards a goal and then not reached it? Turns out, the overwhelming emotion in a situation like that is pride. I just ran 50 miles. At the beginning of the day, I didn't know that I could do it. What a ridiculously huge achievement. Who cares if it took 8 minutes longer than it was supposed to?

Most awkward finish line picture ever. That's Trent at my side, relentlessly encouraging.

I was mad that Trent made me smile for this photo, but I'm glad he did.

Post Race Drama

My post-race experience didn't go as planned. As soon as I crossed the line, I felt cold and nauseated. I couldn't eat or drink and I started to hyperventilate. I had such trouble trying to slow my breathing that Trent wondered if I needed to go to the hospital and eventually summoned one of the race representatives to help assess the situation. She asked me a few questions and between gasps for air I gave her my answers. In the meantime, Trent was on the phone with Whiting and Doug who were looking for an urgent care down the road in Frisco for us to go to. This has happened to me before, after Ironman Louisville, but the difference is that in Louisville, Trent had an inhaler for me to use right away. (Guess what's going in the bag for the next race?) I think this happened as a result of extreme emotion after a day of extreme exertion (Louisville was the last race where I really gave it my all before this).

The folks assessing the situation determined that I would be fine if I drank water and headed to lower elevation. After about an hour in the car back to Denver, my breathing slowed and I started to feel a bit more normal.

Thank You!
I want to say a big thank you to my friends, family, and Big Sexy Racing teammates for all the support. Especially to Trent, Whiting, Doug, Melina, McKenna, Chris, and Herb for the support out there on the course. This really is a team sport and I'm so grateful to my crew. Thank you to Nell for getting me as ready as possible for this one and the upcoming challenge at the Leadville Trail 100. And to everyone reading this, of course I am ridiculously honored that you're reading this and joining me in the adventure - thank you!

I'm looking forward to applying everything I've learned towards the next race. In 5 weeks I'll toe the line for the 100 and after last weekend's experience I'm confident that I'll be ready to put forth my best effort. I'm surprised and happy that even after not making the time cut at Silver Rush, I'm actually feeling more confident about the 100. I absolutely love everything about this trail running adventure! See y'all in August.